Why do politicians wait until the last minute to strike a deal?

The media hyped the impending fiscal cliff for weeks. And only at the last hour, on the night of December 31st, did Vice President Biden and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell finally ink a deal. And once they got a deal done, there was self-congratulatory accolades all around.

Most Americans get upset and suggest they shouldn’t celebrate for simply doing their job. And the fiscal cliff was a self-imposed deadline in which Congress forced itself to deal with our tax rates and spending. And they punted on spending.

And many people wonder: Why couldn’t the deal have been finalized two weeks before the deadline? Isn’t it a sign of our dysfunctional politics that they waited until the last minute when they had 18 months to prepare for this deadline?

But there’s two simple reasons why they wait for the last minute to iron out a final deal. Imagine if Biden and McConnell had arranged the deal on December 14th. Conservatives would say that McConnell should have waited for a better deal. If only he had threatened to walk and waited until right before the deadline, then maybe he could have made Biden sign off on no tax raises at all?

The same could be said, of course, for Democratic detractors if Biden had secured a deal two weeks early.

And here’s the other side of it: If you only have a few days (or hours) before the deadline, then there isn’t a lot of time to organize a mounted campaign against the compromised deal. Whether or not you supported this bill or not, there’s no doubt that letting Congress debate it for two weeks would almost surely kill the bill. (Personally, I think the bill was the best play given that the GOP only had a House majority — I would have voted for it.)

The answer is that they wait for the last minute because too many of us want them to wait until the last minute.

And I’m glad that Congress and the President decided 18 months ago to impose on themselves a fiscal cliff deadline. It wasn’t just a normal deadline where they said, “Let’s agree to deal with this next year.” No, what they did is establish a punishment neither side would presumably want if they failed to reach a real deal. Harsh military cuts and large tax raises that Republicans would not want and strong cuts to entitlements that Democrats would not want.

Yeah, they kicked the can on spending. But finally, after a full decade, we made 85% of the Bush tax cuts permanent, including the very pro-family doubling of the per child tax credit of $500 to $1,000.

In two months when talk turns again to a debt ceiling and sequestration (automatic spending cuts), many of our fellow Americans will roll their eyes and think “more Washington games!”

But what’s the alternative? That we never force ourselves to deal with our federal government’s insatiable appetite?

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